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Parshas Vayeira (5773)

The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (Visiting the Sick)

This week’s Torah portion opens up with the verse: “G-d appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1). The Midrash teaches that this took place on the third day after Abraham had his circumcision when he was quite sick and in lots of pain, so G-d appeared to him to cheer him up and make him feel better.

The Talmud in Sotah 14b states: “[Once a person becomes ill, it is a mitzvah to visit him; for we find that the Holy One, Blessed is He, visited the sick.] Thus Rabbi Chamma son of Rabbi Chanina taught: What is meant by the passage, “You shall walk after the Lord, your G-d” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? How is it possible for a human being to ‘walk after’ and follow the Divine Presence? Has it not been written: “For the Lord, your G-d is a consuming fire” (ibid. 4:24)? But what it means is: Follow and emulate the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed is He … Just as He visits the sick, as it is written: “G-d appeared to him [Abraham, who was ill following his circumcision] in the plains of Mamre …” (Genesis 18:1); so should you also visit the sick.”

The mitzvah (commandment) to visit the sick – called Bikur Cholim in Hebrew (pronounced bee-COOR khoe-LEEM) – is included in the general category of Gemillus Chassadim, “the performance of good deeds", but is singled out by the rabbis as something special. It is one of the mitzvos for whose performance a person ‘enjoys the fruit’ in this world, while the ‘principal’ awaits him in the World to Come.

The essence of the mitzvah of visiting the sick involves the following three aspects:

(1) Attending to the material needs of the patient, e.g. offering him a drink, calling a nurse for him, etc.
(2) Speaking to him in an understanding manner, to strengthen him and calm him – and to give him hope.
(3) Praying for the patient’s speedy recovery. [By viewing the sick person’s situation firsthand, one is motivated to pray more intensely on his behalf.] For example, one can say - in Hebrew or in any other language – the following short prayer: “May it be Your will, my G-d and the G-d of my forefathers, that you quickly send a complete recovery from heaven, spiritual healing and physical healing, to the patient (Hebrew name) son/daughter of (mother’s Hebrew name) among the other patients of Israel.”

The Halachah (Jewish law) is clear … One who visits the sick but does not pray for him has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (see Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 335:4).

Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Baumol ZT”L, once explained that the words Bikur Cholim themselves allude to the different aspects of the mitzvah.

On the one hand, the term bikur implies a critical examination to understand and differentiate, as in the verse “Lo ‘yevakeir’ bein tov la’ra – He shall not ‘examine’ whether it be good or bad” (Leviticus 27:33). Taken this way, Bikur Cholim means to ‘examine’ and ‘discern’ the needs of the sick patient and to attend to them – the most basic element of the mitzvah of visiting the sick.

The word bikur is also related to the Hebrew word boker, or ‘morning’. This talks to the second aspect of the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim mentioned above. Often, the sick person sees only a dark night ahead of him with no future to look forward to in life. By encouraging the patient and cheering him up, we give him boker – the hope of a new tomorrow – the promise of a bright morning to replace his dreary mourning.

Finally, the word bikur simply means ‘to visit’ – and it is through showing up for a visit and seeing the sick person’s condition that we are moved to pray even harder for his speedy recovery.

The Talmud in Nedarim 39b notes that there is a mitzvah to visit a sick person even one hundred times in one day. However, this applies only in a situation in which he is interested in the company of the visitor.

As well, a visitor should not spend time with those who are suffering from intestinal disorders, speech problems, or mental disturbances, when the visit is likely to prove difficult or embarrassing to the patient. Better to just say hello and inquire about his needs from a distance.

As much as there is a mitzvah to go visit a sick person, one also has to know when to leave. The Talmud in Bava Metzia 30b derives the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim from the verse in Parshas Yisro, “And you shall make known to them the path in which they should go ..." (Exodus 18:20). The Sages explain that the words “they should go” refer to the mitzvah of visiting the sick [for the primary obligation of visiting the sick is fulfilled by just ‘going’ there to be with the sick person – even if one ends up not ‘doing’ anything when he’s there.] The Chasam Sofer interprets the Sages’ words homiletically. He writes that this verse teaches that when visitors come to fulfill the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, they must know when they’ve been there long enough and "they should go."

With regard to whether one can perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick over the telephone, by fax, e-mail, text message, Facebook, etc, the Halachah is that he has fulfilled his basic obligation, but not completely, since he has omitted some of the essential aspects cited above. Therefore, if one can visit in person, it is certainly preferable to do so.

Bikur Cholim is a relatively easy mitzvah to do - it doesn’t require any knowledge, it doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t take that much time (even spending a half hour a week at the local old age home or hospital does the trick) – all one really needs to be an ‘expert’ in this mitzvah is a compassionate heart and a bright smile to bring a little light and joy – and, G-d willing, a speedy recovery - into a sick person’s life.

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